Comforting Illusions

“William Sloane Coffin tells the story of a scientist from Harvard flying on an experimental mission in a private plane over the lake country of northern Alabama, measuring with elaborate instruments the fish populations of various lakes. Sighting two fisherman out at some remote lake he had just surveyed, the scientist figured that as a favor he would land his plane on the water nearby and tell them that his instruments had discovered that there were no fish to speak of in those waters and they would have better luck if they went on to another lake. So despite the delay, he landed near the anglers and explained the bad news to them, expecting grateful thanks. They were outraged, instantly, and told the scientist in rich Southern expletives where he could take his plane and his instruments and what he could do with them, whereupon they baited their lines once again and kept fishing. The scientist flew off, much abashed and much puzzled. ‘I expected their disappointment,’ he said later, ‘but not their anger.’…But of course we all react that way to unpleasant truth much of the time: it upsets our preconceptions and our comforting illusions and therefore angers us, and often as not we choose to ignore it. None of us wants to be told, even though deep down we may know it, that there are no fish.”

—Kirkpatrick Sale, Human Scale

Thinking Itself Is Dangerous – Los Angeles Review of Books

“Just as terror, even in its pre-total, merely tyrannical form ruins all relationships between men, so the self-compulsion of ideological thinking ruins all relationships with reality. The preparation has succeeded when people have lost contact with their fellow men as well as the reality around them, for together with these contacts, men lose the capacity of both experience and thought. The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced Communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction (i.e., the reality of experience) and the distinction between true and false (i.e., the standards of thought) no longer exist.”

Ideological thinking forecloses our ability to discern by flattening the plurality of the human condition, destroying our ability to distinguish between fact and fiction, right and wrong.”

—Samantha Hill, “Thinking Itself is Dangerous.” Los Angeles Review of Books. October 22, 2018.

Review of Hannah Arendt’s Thinking Without a Bannister. The idea for the title is quoted within the article:

“I have a metaphor which is not quite that cruel, and which I never published but kept for myself. I call it thinking without a banister. In German, “Denken ohne Geländer.” That is, as you go up and down the stairs you can always hold on to the banister so that you don’t fall down. But we have lost this banister. That is the way I tell it to myself. And this is indeed what I try to do.”

—Hannah Arendt, quoted in ibid.